Excerpt from Communications Protocol #4–Asking Questions

“Most tribes have had at least two-hundred years of someone trying to sell us goods we don’t want. Know what you are seeking and recognize that whatever ‘it’ is, it is subject to negotiation.”

–Points of Protocol for Working with Tribes
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
January, 2008

Here’s the scenario. You have a great program or project you want to present to a tribe. So, you approach the tribal leader(s) and say, “I have this great program or project for you and here are all the great things it will do for your tribe.” You get no response, no reaction, and leave frustrated. Your communication filters tell you they were not interested when in reality it was your approach that was wrong.

Let’s look at what happened here. First, many times in the past two hundred years government and business leaders have told tribes “what was good for them” with the final result ending up being nothing more than broken promises or a path with hidden agendas. Second, you do not know what is culturally appropriate for a tribe unless you are from that tribe and know the cultural protocols. And finally, you may not be aware of the tribe’s agenda and priorities and come across as being “too pushy.”

Ben Speak Thunder, past tribal chair of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, relates the following story about a government official making a presentation to their tribal council:  “I’ll never forget the day when there’s this individual came in from the state … and he says, “Hello, how are you doing? I’m here from the government and how can I help you?” And that really brought the roof down and it was really humorous. The individual really embarrassed himself. I’m sure his intentions were good, but I guess those types of things to me are really the wrong approach.”

The tribal council’s response to this government official’s approach is so predictable. The question, “I’m from the government and how can I help you?” evokes those past examples of failed government assistance to tribes and triggers immediate cynicism. What an important lesson for all of us to keep in mind when working with tribes…

Jim St. Arnold, an Ojibwa friend of mine in Michigan, told me exactly how we should ask questions when presenting a program or proposal to a tribe or tribal leader:  “I tell people not to come in with this attitude of, “I’m here to help you and what can I do for you?” And, that goes on quite a bit. Go in there quietly, go in there and say, “This is what I have, this is what I can do, what would you like?” And, you will accomplish more with that type of attitude than if you say, “Well, here, I know what you want, I know what is good for you, here it is.” The community, the tribal leaders, will [say], “You don’t know anything!” and they’ll turn around and walk away from you. You’ll be sitting there [thinking] I have this great thing for them, why won’t they take it? It may be great from your point of view, but it’s not necessarily great from my point of view. And, you need to come in there and say, “Okay, this is what I have. How can we work together?” That’s the key. How can we work together? My father used to say, “Talk to me, don’t talk at me” because if you are talking at me you are not listening to what I’m saying. You need to talk to me. And, that’s what a lot of people need to understand when they work with tribes.”

So, if there is one thing you can do to align your approach with tribal protocol this is it—don’t tell, ask!

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